Globetrotting photographer Ilan Derech’s journey through the COVID-19 pandemic turned into a story of human kindness and connectivity, ultimately transcending borders and cultures. He’s since gained a reputation as a cross-chain NFT artist, minting what he describes as a “compelling blend of street photography and cinematography.”
Born in Mexico in 1990, Derech says he has been influenced by visual storytelling. His work evokes the sensation of a cinematic experience. He focuses on capturing the candidness of daily life, creating scenes that almost slow down the pace of time.
Collaborating with brands such as Leica, National Geographic, Air Canada, and Sony, while also serving as a global ambassador for ZEISS Camera Lenses and VIVO Telecommunications, Derech’s story inspires collaborators, fans, and the companies that support his work.
His latest edition on OpenSea, Ichi-go Ichi-e (or “一期一会”), which translates to "One time, one meeting" or “for this time only,” is inspired by the concept of “treasuring the unrepeatable nature of a moment.” Shot in Tokyo in 2021, the edition hints at the introspection found within a single second.
“My work is about how the whole moment feels like a little world,” Derech tells us. “It's important to translate how the mood is and how the environment feels.”
Ahead, Derech describes his process and shares more about his journey as an NFT artist.
OpenSea: Your work tells stories of life’s fleeting, irreplaceable moments. What is your perception of time, and how does it influence your work?
Ilan Derech: The pace of time just becomes very relative at some point. I don't remember what day I'm living in. I don't know what time it is. It's crazy because I think a lot of the things that we were used to from back in the day, like traditional school and the traditional schedule — you wake up at this time and you eat at this time — that taught us a certain timeline that I feel like worked back then. It doesn't work for now. I don't know if people still realize it or not, but web3 kind of erases those limits [and] boundaries of space and time. It's just… you are living in this constant non-stop thread because everybody's waking up and sleeping at the same time, right? When you're interacting with people, once people go to sleep, other people are already waking up. So, it's this non-stop thing where it's really hard to break out from that kind of loop because you know that you're missing out.
OpenSea: How has web3 and this concept of “no limitations” influenced your approach to art?
Ilan Derech: Now, more than ever, I feel like we curate how we spend our time. We realize that we have a certain amount of energy because certain activities drain all of our energy. I want to be mindful about how I use my hours. Who are the people I want to talk with? Who means the most to me, and to whom do I mean the most? It's not about having meaningless interactions with others. I remember discussing in an interview how, before all this, I used to go to parties and random events, things that were more like entertainment fillers for life. But with the advent of web3, so much of my time is devoted to things I truly care about. As a result, I don't interact as much in real life, as it doesn't seem as meaningful to me anymore. It's not about art, collecting, crypto, or web3. It's about the joy of engaging in activities that incorporate all these factors.
OpenSea: How did the pandemic shape your journey to web3? Tell us how you got started making NFTs during such an uncertain time.
Ilan Derech: For me, the experience was different from most people trapped by COVID-19, as I was intentionally traveling during the pandemic. I didn't initially think Covid would be a significant issue. In December 2019, I left my home country, Mexico, and began traveling around Asia. As I traveled, the pandemic worsened. Each time I heard the news of its escalation, I moved to the next country. My work involved documentary photography; I'd photograph and then, upon hearing more news, travel to another country.
In India, the situation became dire. The government advised all foreigners to leave. Unfortunately, my card was declined for my flight [out] due to Mexican banks requiring SMS verification. Luckily, a photographer friend exchanged a lens for my flight from India to Japan. I planned only a two-hour stay in Tokyo for a connection, but then, borders worldwide closed.
OpenSea: Wow, so Tokyo became your new home?
Ilan Derech: Essentially, yes. We were initially told it would be for two weeks, but after that period, we were informed of the severity of the pandemic and that we had to stay. I lived in a hostel, which graciously opened its doors to me since most tourists had left. I spoke with the management about my situation. They were aware of the extended lockdown and understood that without their help, I would be homeless. I had been traveling for a long time and was running low on funds. They generously allowed me to stay for whatever payment I could afford, even if it was as little as one dollar or ten dollars. The hostel couldn't provide the usual level of staff and services, but they ensured I had a roof over my head.
OpenSea: Well, that is certainly a memorable way to make a new home for yourself. Three years later, you're still in Japan. Do you feel like you're going to stay for a long time? Artistically, do you still have more to explore?
Ilan Derech: After that, my stay [was] extended to nine months. During this time, I used the hostel's bicycles, as I was broke and had little else to do besides learning the language and exploring the country. I always took my camera with me. However, I had to sell my lens earlier, so I couldn't take photos. I became very active on Instagram, sharing my story. The brand of the lens I sold noticed and kindly sent me a new lens as a gift. But they didn't just send the lens; the company's staff also put together a box of groceries and essentials I needed to survive.
OpenSea: What company was it?
Ilan Derech: ZEISS. Sometimes, when companies ship you stuff, it can very clearly have a corporate feel, you know? But in this case, there was a distinctly personal touch. The package included Ziplock bags with homemade face masks from family members, assorted groceries, and Japanese sweets. People sent these because they knew I was struggling with meals, eating only once a day due to financial constraints. They included post-it notes like, “Oh, we hope that you will feel better. This is a very tough situation and all of us wish you all the best! Keep doing what you love.” When they gave me the lens, they said, “We know how much you love what you're doing. And we hope that this helps you have a better time in Tokyo.”
OpenSea: You also met your wife during this time. Tell us that story.
Ilan Derech: We met through a dating app. She was looking for a photographer to shoot and hang out with, not to date. Her profile made it very clear, which appealed to me since I wasn’t in a place to start a serious relationship. We matched on Tinder, went out and I shared my life story. I looked like a backpacker with a long beard, and she looked super nice, all dressed up. After our first outing, [during which] we ended up eating sandwiches by the river, I realized I genuinely liked her. A few weeks later, I asked her to be my girlfriend despite the uncertainties of my travel plans. Eventually, she invited me to move into her apartment. I tend to say that I was like a stray dog that she adopted. She took care of me, fed me, and supported me and everything. And when [I got started with] NFTs, I was getting out from the hostel and at the same time doing digital art and moving into this relationship. And it was really cool because she works in tech. So when I mentioned NFTs, for her it was also very natural to understand. She was naturally receptive to the concepts of NFTs and cryptocurrency. We have this very cool agreement where she works for corporate and she earns fiat, and I work full time in web3 digital art, and we make a life’s savings with crypto.
OpenSea: That’s so wonderful. You once said that there are cities made for daytime and cities made for nighttime, and Tokyo's lighting makes it best for shooting at night. When did you start to think of photography in this way?
Ilan Derech: I remember back in art school, we had a class about Chiaroscuro, and they spoke a lot about the beauty of not showing the beauty of darkness. I've always believed that art is more about what you don't show than what you show. It's like dating — if you tell everything that you are on the first day, people get bored of you. So, you have to keep turning things from everybody and just have this mysterious allure to things.
For me, the night is part of that. At night, there are so many things that we don't see, and having that part of unknowingness, of isolation, makes things personally more attractive. But also, I have a condition, you could say. I'm hypersensitive. So, during the day, light actually hurts me. That pushed me to shoot a lot during the nighttime because my eyes feel like they're full of sand. So, it hurts a lot. When it's nighttime, I'm able to not only feel better but also see more.
OpenSea: What inspires you more, portrait or landscapes? Because the city itself also seems to be a really important subject matter in your work.
Ilan Derech: It's really tough because a lot of my work is… I have this thing where I like to have no expectations, right? I go out and I don't even really plan overall what I'm going to shoot. I just literally one day feel like going out, exploring, getting lost. A lot of this came from, unfortunately, [that] I lost my father a few years ago. And you know, I think we all had a plan for our lives and we all thought we were going to do things and buy a home and have kids, [but] in this day and age, we realized that plans don't work. It's really, really hard, especially in web3. Everything is so volatile and different that it's really hard to have certainty about what is going to happen. So I adopted this idea of slowing [down] — just adapting to what's going on.
OpenSea: Do you have any upcoming releases, collaborations, or projects that you're excited about? Anything you want to tease?
Ilan Derech: Well, I'm really fortunate because I've been able to have a waitlist for my work. So I have a lot of pieces already pending to be made. I'm really excited because this year is all about growth, and it's all about traveling around the country and making all these one-of-one pieces for people [who] have already entrusted me to make them come true. So, for me, I think that the most exciting part is like, I know exactly what I have to do. I can be a little bit more strategic and [I can] be more mindful about each one and take my time. Once you solidify yourself as an artist over here, you can have that confidence of saying, okay, now I can actually work in a more human way. That's something that really, really makes me happy. There's a lot of collaborations going on. I can't really talk about them because they aren't solidified yet. But yeah, there [are a] lot of things that are going to happen this year.
OpenSea: Where can people follow you?
Ilan Derech: My Twitter, like everything that has to do with web3. Everything goes out through there.
OpenSea: It's so inspiring to hear your story, Ilan, and I really admire your work. Thanks for your time today.
Ilan Derech: Thank you so much for this. I really appreciate it.